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National Institute on Aging

Bills retired and lives alone. Often hes just
not hungry or is too tired to fix a whole meal.
Does he need a multivitamin, or should he
take one of those dietary supplements he sees in
ads everywhere? Bill wonders if they work
will one help keep his joints healthy or another
give him more energy? And, are they safe?

What Is a Dietary Supplement?

Dietary supplements are substances
you might use to add nutrients to your
diet or to lower your risk of health
problems, like osteoporosis or arthritis.
Dietary supplements come in the form
of pills, capsules, powders, gel tabs,
extracts, or liquids. They might contain
vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids,
herbs or other plants, or enzymes.
Sometimes, the ingredients in dietary
supplements are added to foods,
including drinks. A doctors prescription
is not needed to buy dietary supplements.

Should I Take a
Dietary Supplement?
Do you need one? Maybe you do,
but usually not. Ask yourself why you
think you might want to take a dietary
supplement. Are you concerned about
getting enough nutrients? Is a friend, a
neighbor, or someone on a commercial
suggesting you take one? Some ads for
dietary supplements in magazines or
on TV seem to promise that these
supplements will make you feel better,
keep you from getting sick, or even help
you live longer. Sometimes, there is little,
if any, good scientific research supporting
these claims. Dietary supplements may
give you nutrients that might be missing
from your daily diet. But eating a variety
of healthy foods is the best way to get the
nutrients you need. Supplements may
cost a lot, could be harmful, or simply
might not be helpful. Some supplements
can change how medicines you may
already be taking will work. You should
talk to your doctor or a registered
dietitian for advice.

What If Im Over 50?

People over 50 may need more of
some vitamins and minerals than
younger adults do. Your doctor or a
dietitian can tell you whether you need

to change your diet or take vitamins or

minerals to get enough of these:
F Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 helps keep

your red blood cells and nerves healthy.

Vitamin B12 is mainly found in fish,
shellfish, meat, and dairy products. As
people grow older, some have trouble
absorbing vitamin B12 naturally found in
food. They can choose foods, like
fortified cereals, that have this vitamin
added or use a B12 supplement.
F Calcium. Calcium works with vitamin D

to keep bones strong at all ages. Bone

loss can lead to fractures in both older
women and men. Calcium is found in
milk and milk products (fat-free or
low-fat is best), canned fish with soft

bones, dark-green leafy vegetables like

kale, and foods with calcium added like
breakfast cereals.
F Vitamin D. Some peoples bodies make

enough vitamin D if they are in the sun

for 10 to 15 minutes at least twice a week.
But, if you are older, you may not be able
to get enough vitamin D that way. Try
adding vitamin D-fortified milk and milk
products, vitamin D-fortified cereals,
and fatty fish to your diet, and/or use a
vitamin D supplement.
F Vitamin B6. This vitamin is needed

to form red blood cells. It is found in

potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and
fortified cereals.

Different Vitamin and Mineral Recommendations

for People Over 50 (2010)
The National Academy of Sciences recommends how much of each vitamin and mineral men and
women of different ages need. Sometimes, the Academy also tells us how much of a vitamin or
mineral is too much.
Vitamin B12 2.4 mcg (micrograms) each day (if you are taking medicine for acid reflux, you might
need a different form, which your healthcare provider can give you)
CalciumWomen over 50 need 1,200 mg (milligrams) each day, and men need 1,000 mg between
age 51 and 70 and 1,200 mg after 70, but not more than 2,000 mg a day.
Vitamin D600 IU (International Units) for people age 51 to 70 and 800 IU for those over 70, but
not more than 4,000 IU each day
Vitamin B6 1.7 mg for men and 1.5 mg for women each day
When thinking about whether you need more of a vitamin or mineral, think about how much of
each nutrient you get from food and drinks, as well as from any supplements you take. Check with
a doctor or dietitian to learn whether you need to supplement your diet.

What Are Antioxidants?

You might hear about antioxidants in
the news. These are natural substances
found in food that might help protect
you from some diseases. Here are some
common sources of antioxidants that you
should be sure to include in your diet:
F beta-carotenefruits and vegetables that

are either dark green or dark orange

F seleniumseafood, liver, meat,

and grains
F vitamin Ccitrus fruits, peppers,

tomatoes, and berries

F vitamin Ewheat germ, nuts, sesame

seeds, and canola, olive, and peanut oils

Right now, research results suggest
that large doses of supplements with
antioxidants will not prevent chronic
diseases such as heart disease or diabetes.
In fact, some studies have shown that
taking large doses of some antioxidants
could be harmful. Again, it is best to
check with your doctor before taking
a dietary supplement.

What About Herbal

Herbal supplements are dietary
supplements that come from plants. A
few that you may have heard of are gingko

biloba, ginseng, echinacea, and black

cohosh. Researchers are looking at using
herbal supplements to prevent or
treat some health problems. Its
too soon to know if herbal
supplements are both safe
and useful. But, studies
of some have not
shown benefits.

Are Dietary
Supplements Safe?
Scientists are still working to
answer this question. The U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) checks
prescription medicines, such as antibiotics
or blood pressure medicines, to make
sure they are safe and do what they
promise. The same is true for over-thecounter drugs like pain and cold medicines.
But the FDA does not consider dietary
supplements to be medicines. The FDA
does not watch over dietary supplements
in the same way it does prescription
medicines. The Federal Government
does not regularly test what is in dietary
supplements. So, just because you see a
dietary supplement on a store shelf does
not mean it is safe, that it does what the
label says it will, or that it contains what
the label says it contains.

If the FDA receives reports of possible

problems with a supplement, it will issue
warnings about products that are clearly
unsafe. The FDA may also take these
supplements off the market. The Federal
Trade Commission looks into reports of
ads that might misrepresent what dietary
supplements do.
A few private groups, such as the U.S.
Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International,, and the Natural
Products Association (NPA), have their
own seals of approval for dietary supplements. To get such a seal, products must
be made by following good manufacturing procedures, must contain what is
listed on the label, and must not have
harmful levels of things that dont belong
there, like lead.

Whats Best for Me?

If you are thinking about using
dietary supplements:
F Learn. Find out as much as you can

about any dietary supplement you might

take. Talk to your doctor, your pharmacist,
or a registered dietitian. A supplement
that seemed to help your neighbor might
not work for you. If you are reading fact
sheets or checking websites, be aware of
the source of the information. Could the
writer or group profit from the sale of a

particular supplement? For more

information from the National Institute
on Aging about choosing reliable health
information websites, see For More
F Remember. Just because something

is said to be natural doesnt also mean

it is either safe or good for you. It could
have side effects. It might make a medicine
your doctor prescribed for you either
weaker or stronger.
F Tell your doctor. He or she needs to

know if you decide to go ahead and use

a dietary supplement. Do not diagnose
or treat your health condition without
first checking with your doctor.
F Buy wisely. Choose brands that your

doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist says are

trustworthy. Dont buy dietary supplements with ingredients you dont need.
Dont assume that more is better. It is
possible to waste money on unneeded
F Check the science. Make sure any

claim made about a dietary supplement

is based on scientific proof. The company
making the dietary supplement should
be able to send you information on the
safety and/or effectiveness of the
ingredients in a product, which you
can then discuss with your doctor.
Remember that if something sounds too

good to be true, it
probably is.

For More Information

What Can I Do to
Stay Healthy?

Department of Agriculture
Food and Nutrition Information Center
National Agricultural Library
10301 Baltimore Avenue, Room 108
Beltsville, MD 20705

Here are some helpful resources:

Heres what one active

older person does:
When she turned 60, Pearl decided
she wanted to stay healthy and active as long
as possible. She was careful about what she
ate. She became more physically active. Now
she takes a long, brisk walk 3 or 4 times a
week. In bad weather, she joins the mall
walkers at the local shopping mall. On nice
days, Pearl works in her garden. When she
was younger, Pearl stopped smoking and
started using a seatbelt. Shes even learning
how to use a computer to find healthy recipes.
Last month, she turned 84 and danced at her
granddaughters wedding!
Try following Pearls examplestick to a
healthy diet, be physically active, keep
your mind active, dont smoke, see your
doctor regularly, and, in most cases, only
use dietary supplements suggested by
your doctor or pharmacist.

Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20580
1-877-382-4357 (toll-free)
1-866-653-4261 (TTY/toll-free)
Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and
Applied Nutrition
5100 Paint Branch Parkway
College Park, MD 20740
1-888-723-3366 (toll-free)
National Center for Complementary
and Alternative Medicine
NCCAM Clearinghouse
P.O. Box 7923
Gaithersburg, MD 20898
1-888-644-6226 (toll-free)
1-866-464-3615 (TTY/toll-free)

National Library of Medicine


For information on exercise, nutrition, and

health scams and other resources on
health and aging, contact:

Office of Dietary Supplements

National Institutes of Health
6100 Executive Boulevard
Room 3B01, MSC 7517
Bethesda, MD 20892-7517

National Institute on Aging

Information Center
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
1-800-222-2225 (toll-free)
1-800-222-4225 (TTY/toll-free)

The Federal Government has several

other websites with information on
nutrition, including:
www.nutrition.govlearn more
about healthy eating, food shopping,
assistance programs, and nutritionrelated health subjects.
about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

To sign up for regular email alerts about

new publications and other information
from the NIA, go to
Visit, a seniorfriendly website from the National
Institute on Aging and the National
Library of Medicine. This website has
health and wellness information for
older adults. Special features make it
simple to use. For example, you can
click on a button to make the type larger.

NIH...Turning Discovery Into Health

April 2008 | Reprinted May 2013